The National Breast Screening Programme detected nearly 6,000 cancers last year which would otherwise have been missed, according to data from the NHS Information Centre.

A total of 14,229 cancers were detected by the programme in 2009-10, at a rate of 7.9 per 1,000 women screened.

The cancers can be invasive or non-invasive, depending on whether they have spread out of the glands where they develop.

More than 40 per cent of the cancers found were invasive but smaller than 15mm so usually would not be detected by hand.

There was a 1 per cent increase in invasive cancers compared with the previous year.

In 2001 the programme was extended to cover women aged 65-70 and last year 1.79m women aged 45 and over were screened - a rise of more than a third from 10 years ago.

Last October, HSJ reported that the NHS Cancer Screening programme was behind on its target to convert from film to digital mammography machines by the end of 2010. Only 60 per cent of centres had a least one of the digital scanners, which are quicker and more accurate than film.

The programme’s most recent figures show 69, or 85 per cent, of the 81 screening units in England now offer digital screening.